Colin Ian Jeffery
Sinking Of The Birkenhead - Poem by Colin Ian Jeffery
The Birkenhead, an iron hulled paddle steamer, was a British troopship carrying reinforcements to regiments serving in South Africa. On 26th February 1852, the ship struck a reef off Simon's Bay on the South African shark infested coast. There followed one of the most heroic displays of courage and bravery to save women and children that astonished the world. Of the 634 people on board 193 survived. Not a woman or child perished. The soldiers stood fast and silent on deck as the ship went down.
With churning paddle wheels
Pushing through crested waves
HMS Birkenhead approaches the rock
Hidden below churning sea
While most on board are sleeping
All but the sailors on duty watch.
Sailor with rope and lead
Cries out "Sounding twelve fathoms"
Ship ram's the uncharted rock
Shattering hull like egg shell
Water flooding forward compartments
Drowning more than a hundred soldiers.
Surviving soldiers, three hundred souls
Assembling on deck standing in ranks
Many barefoot, dressed in night clothes
Others naked, some with injuries sustained
When clawing up from flooded quarters
Each man afraid but courageously standing fast.
Colonel Seaton summoning officers
Telling them to keep order among the ranks
Calming the frightened troopers
Most young raw recruits
Facing the greatest fear of dying
While standing silent and determined.
The ship's cutter lowered away
With Ensign Russell in command
Taking women and children to safety
Standing off from sinking ship.
He knows he can take no more survivors
With cutter so heavy in the water.
Horses are thrown overboard
Giving them the chance to swim
Three miles in shark-infested sea
Neighing in terror they thrash the water
As sharks come gliding in to feast
No horse will make it to the shore.
Captain Salmond orders boats lowered
But most of the lowering equipment
Fails through lack of maintenance
Paint clogging mechanisms
Only two cutters and a gig are launched
As the soldiers stand bravely on parade.
Soldiers stand fast so cutters and the gig
Will not be swamped and sunk
With lives of women and children lost
They did not move as the ship broke in two
Huge waves crashing in upon them
Nor was a cry heard as they were engulfed.
Ensign Russell saw a man drowning
Gave up his seat in the cutter
Helping the man on board
Then swam towards the distant shore
Shark's fin briefly glimpsed
Scream heard and Russell was gone.
They were the very best of British men
Standing firm against death
Without thought for themselves
When England heard of their heroism
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert wept
And a proud nation mourned lost sons.
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